Citizen Engagement Subcommittee Recommends Outreach Budget

The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s Citizen Engagement Subcommittee voted May 20 to recommend that the commission spend a minimum of $250,000 on public hearings and advertising to engage with Virginia citizens on the 2021 redistricting process.

The subcommittee reviewed budget figures suggested by the Division of Legislative Services staff as a starting point, before reaching consensus on some adjustments.

Members of the DLS reviewed (The figures are provided at the end of the document posted here. ) Director Amigo Wade said that the staff had estimated that  the eight public hearings the subcommittee had proposed would cost roughly $13,448 each for a total of $107,584. He said the estimate was based on the costs of facility rental and court reporters to prepare transcriptions, broadcasting capabilities, and per diems and expenses for four commission members to attend each hearing, along with two DLS staff members. Wade noted that DLS has been absorbing the costs of virtual hearings so far. He added that he had looked at the experience of members of the Martin Luther King Memorial Commission, and said he generally budgets “at the upper range.”

Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) mused whether money could be saved by making use of the facilities of faith communities, libraries, and pubic universities. “This is the people’s business we are doing, so we should at least ask,” she said. Wade said that the staff had reviewed earlier public hearings that were held in conference spaces that could hold 200 to 300 persons. He said that his estimates had included the cost of engaging American Sign Language interpreters and a security presence. He said DLS could explore the kind of options McQuinn suggested,  but that they might not be available in every region. McQuinn noted that many of the facilities now have better technology for broadcasting meetings than they did before the Covid-19 pandemic.

James Abrenio, the Democratic citizen member who co-chaired the subcommittee meeting, referenced comments provided by Erin Corbett, redistricting coordinator for the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, and encouraged the public to reach out to the commission if they had ideas for places where hearings could be held. “If we use less money for this,” he said,” we can put the money to something else.”

Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) said he agreed with McQuinn, and also questioned whether court reporters would be needed if the hearings would be broadcast. Abrenio agreed, saying that if someone needed a transcript to pursue litigation, they could arrange to have the video transcribed. Wade acknowledged that DLS was basing its numbers on the need to transcribe hearings that were held in the previous redistricting cycle. He noted that the Internet had existed back then, but social media platforms were not what they were today. “That would be a great savings,” he agreed.

Claire Waters of the DLS staff shared her research on estimated costs for social media advertising, but acknowledged that she was not an expert on that topic. The DLS estimate was based on average costs for advertising campaigns on three social media platforms, and running the campaigns between now and November. Waters suggested that the campaign would be more successful if the commission hired a social media consultant to manage the ads. With the consultant, she estimated the cost would be $48,900; without the consultant it would be $25,200.

Democratic Commissioner Brandon Hutchins said that the commission might need help in developing content in addition to “quick fact blasts” about its public hearings. He also noted that advertising could be targeted to the part of the state where a hearing was being held.

Waters stressed that transparency was important, and that if the commission wanted to receive maps from the public, it could put its guidelines in front of the public. She noted that “not a lot of people go to our website,” but that the moment the commission’s Twitter account was mentioned at a recent commission meeting, it gained 40 followers. “That’s how social media changes the game,” she said.

McQuinn acknowledged that social media was important, but cautioned that there were generational differences in its use. She also noted that after the Covid-19 pandemic began, it was found that many rural areas do not have adequate broadband coverage, and that in urban communities, many households don’t have computers or the necessary technology. She urged the commission to give “strong consideration to this” as it looked at social media.

Richard Harrell, the subcommittee’s Republican co-chair, reminded the subcommittee of its discussions about reaching out to foreign-language speakers. He also suggested seeking help from city and county governments and organizations such as the Farm Bureau; making use of free print and broadcast media; and getting free public service inserts in bills sent by Dominion Energy Virginia and rural electric cooperatives. Abrenio responded that “any organization that wants to help us get free advertising through media, we’re open to it.”

The subcommittee also discussed hiring a communications coordinator, rather than just a specialist in social media. Wade responded that in the DLS’s review of other commissions, that was “almost to the level of best practices.” He said a coordinator could help put together specific plans for who the commission wanted to reach. Wade also observed that “what might work best in Southwest may not work in Northern Virginia.”

Wade also reported that the commission’s Selection Committee had arranged for print advertisements, totaling $7,000 for one week, in foreign-language newspapers serving the Korean, Vietnamese and Hispanic communities. In response to a question, Wade said a communications coordinator was not engaged when those decisions were made.

Wade added that the time frame for the selection process was very compressed, and that DLS could not tell whether people were looking at its newspaper ads. He said that when it appeared that there were few applications coming in from certain parts of the state, a second campaign was run, targeting those areas. He said there was “good and bad with an all-print approach.”

In response to questions, DLS staff members said the commission could issue a Request for Information, detailing its legal requirements for public notice and asking for recommendations on the services and advertising budget that might be needed to support its outreach efforts. Michigan, they explained, had followed that approach, and that the information can then support a formal procurement.

Del. Les Adams (R-Chatham) observed that the commission was not like a business, and that its objective had to be to target everyone of voting age in the commonwealthy, rather than seeking the best return on its advertising investment.

Greta Harris, the full commission’s Democratic co-chair who sat in on the subcommittee meeting, said she would “weigh in on the side of [hiring] a coordinator.” She observed that the commission was under time pressures and that its members “all have day jobs.” The reality, she said, “is that to have someone with expertise will ultimately end up saving us money.” She also noted that at the Budget and Finance Subcommittee’s meeting, held the day before, it was suggested that more money could be added to the commission’s budget, if needed, during the General Assembly’s special session this summer.

DLS staff member Brooks Braun also suggested that the Citizen Engagement Subcommittee prioritize its needs so that the Budget and Finance Subcommittee could budget accordingly. Wade added that the statutory requirements would have to be given top priority. He added that the subcommittee might not be able to wait until a community engagement coordinator was hired to seek the coordinator’s advice on priorities. He encouraged the subcommittee to “push making decisions sooner, so you will be at a better place.”

Wade then recommended requesting $200,000, and Co-Chairs Abrenio and Harrell both suggested increasing the proposal to $250,000. That figure was later approved on a vote of 6-0; two members were absent.

The subcommittee then discussed developing public input guidelines for both written and public comments. Wade said the DLS staff had looked at the guidelines for several state commissions and they could be used as a starting point for the Virginia commission. The guidelines, he said, could cover such things as how persons signed up to participate, which of the four participating commissioners would preside, what were the rules of engagement, and how the commission would deal with inappropriate comments or disruptions.

Abrenio said he tries to review public comments that have been submitted to the commission, and that it would be helpful for him to know when they should be checked before a meeting. The DLS staff said it would try to develop better language to explain when and where it was posting comments. Abrenio noted that the Michigan commission’s website had a form in which a commenter could tag the subject of his or her comment. He said he would like to know what this cost because, he said, “that would be super useful.” Harrell and Harris both agreed. Harrell observed, “If someone is in Appomattox, it’s a whole lot better for us to know we need to zero in on that comment for Appomattox County.”

Abrenio also asked whether maps submitted by the public could be read by the software that had been purchased for the commission. A DLS staff member said the software has a feature that could be turned on so that maps submitted by outsiders could be read.

The commissioners then discussed whether comments delivered at public hearings should be limited in time. They discussed a range of two to three minutes, noting that meetings could run very long, depending on how many people wanted to speak. It was suggested that it would be helpful for the commission to provide guidance on what kinds of comments would be useful, and Wade noted that the Michigan commission had provided such guidance. Adams said it would also be helpful to be able to receive comments “in buckets.” Abrenio said, “I don’t intend to tell people what to say and how to say it,” but that his goal was to provide guidance on “how to make their presentation more impactful.”

Abrenio also asked for views on whether commissioners should be able to respond to commenters at public hearings. “Sometimes,” he acknowledged, “I’ve wanted to speak directly to someone.” Wade noted that in Michigan, commissioners could ask commenters to clarify items or provide more information. The consensus was that it was best to avoid getting into a debate with a commenter.

The subcommittee also asked to review a map of the state’s eight regions, developed by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, that DLS had used to characterize the home of citizen applicants. There was some discussion that the commission might need to consider adding a public hearing to better serve the southwestern part of the state, because of the driving distances involved.

Abrenio also reported that the General Assembly does not make use of foreign language translators, but that the Arizona commission had used Spanish and Native American translators, as needed, to comply with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. He said that whatever the commission decided to do should be reviewed by a specialist in Voting Rights Act compliance.

At the start of the meeting, Abrenio made a point of praising the work of the DLS staff, saying it was “very cool as a citizen to see how much work they put in.” He also offered a “shout-out” to OneVirginia2021 and the League of Women Voters of Virginia for the information that they had shared in their public comments.

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

 

 

 

 

 

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